“The paintings [of 1977]…with their massively congested, luminous color, their contrasts between flowing and broken forms, attain at their best a total ‘painterlyness’ in which marks and image coalesce completely and every inch of the canvas quivers with teeming energy.” David Sylvester
“I like a big painting to get so involved that it becomes intimate…” Willem de Kooning
A triumphal painting from one of the artist’s most distinguished series, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled II demonstrates his unrivalled ability to harness the expressive power of paint. By 1955, the artist had abandoned his manic paintings of the female form and, in 1963 he permanently escaped the urban claustrophobia of New York by moving to his new home on Long Island. Here, de Kooning’s canvases began to open up, eschewing his earlier frenzied depictions of women in favor of a more pastoral aesthetic, influenced by his new surrounds. Figures and landscapes become one as images and their reflections merge into a seemingly effortless rush of painterly gestures, replacing the tortured surfaces of his earlier paintings which had established de Kooning as the quintessential action painter. Widely exhibited since it was painted in 1977, Untitled II belongs to one of the artist’s best known and most admired series of paintings. They mark a new chapter in his continuously evolving career—as active and vital as his earlier work, yet seeking out new directions, and “…masterfully transform[ing] his beloved oil medium into glistening oceans of paint” (J. Zilczer, A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, New York, 2014, p. 211).
Across its dynamic surface, de Kooning choreographs an energetic ensemble of colorful forms. Rapid brushstrokes track across the canvas, interspersed with flat planes of variegated color. Passages of flesh colored reds sit next to cool blues, balanced out by planes of translucent white and verdant green. The splashes of blue evoke the coastal landscape close to his new East Hampton home, the mottled green recalls the lush vegetation of the Long Island countryside and finally, the fleshy pinks and reds suggest the human presence that populated this exciting environment. The chameleon-like nature of this canvas is due, in part to the impressive range of painterly techniques that de Kooning employed during this fertile period. He used a loaded brush to lay down areas of thick impasto, resulting in a patchwork of interwoven brushstrokes which is then disrupted by large excavated areas where he removes excess pigment by scrapping off the uppermost painterly layer to reveal the traces of his earlier work underneath. According to his biographers, this tapestry of different methods created the dynamic sense of space that he required. “A supple layering of the space was also a way in which he brought a feeling of controlled form to the water image. A loaded brush skittering across the surface like a splash of water might rhythmically related to a deeper and ghostly level of space below, where the paint had been partially wiped away” (M. Stevens and A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 562).
Elements of de Kooning’s celebrated frenzied action painting persist throughout the present work and drips, scrapes, and scratches remain, particularly in the expansive red passages that populate the center of the canvas. The rapid pace at which the artist worked can be seen in the drops and splashes of paint left in the wake of his rapidly moving brush as it traces its course across the surface the canvas. A series of rigid upright marks populate the lower left corner, possibly left by pressing the edge of a piece of cardboard into the still wet impasto, adding further textural dimension to the composition. De Kooning’s paintings were meticulously planned and composed. They were based on an informal grid, but not one which was rigid enough to constrain his nomadic brush. “The most original compositional device, however, was de Kooning’s masterful way of varying the visual “speed” of his brush. His strokes would lead the eye at one speed and then another. A loaded brush of crimson would move at a certain tempo, then fishhook, dropping into a slow-seeming patch of yellow. Rhythm, speed, and tempo—not just strokes—came into visual balance” (W. de Kooning, quoted by M. Stevens and A. Swan, ibid., pp. 563-64).
The artist’s paintings from the late ‘70s were part of a continuum that began two decades earlier with his highly charged paintings of the female nude. Now regarded as some of the most important works of the post-war period, they did much to establish de Kooning’s earlier career and set the standard for the nascent movement of Abstract Expressionism. Over the course of the 1960s, de Kooning’s interpretation of women softened into more joyous beings, charged with eroticism and rendered in unctuous flesh tones. The luminous light, open spaces and abundance of trees of his new locale appealed to his sensitivities, as did his proximity to the Atlantic, which reminded him of the landscape of Holland—the home that he had left behind so many decades ago. “There is something about being in touch with the sea that makes me feel good,” the artist would recall, “that’s where most of my paintings come from” (W. de Kooning, ibid., p. 3).
At the time this work was painted, de Kooning had also become invigorated by the possibilities of sculpture, having visited a sculptor friend in Italy in the late 1960s. Although he continued to paint, the early 1970s became a period of innovation, both in clay and bronze as well as Japanese-inspired prints. De Kooning’s swift fluency in these new media was testament to his creative virtuosity, endless curiosity in the human figure and sharp eye for its behaviours and mannerisms.
Untitled II, along with de Kooning’s other paintings from the mid-1970s, meticulously combine the idea of the female figure and the landscape. The aggressive paintings of the 1950s had been tamed, and following his move from New York City to the pastoral surroundings of Long Island, he began to introduce a more luscious quality into his compositions. Beginning in 1975 with Whose Name Was Writ in Water (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) his canvases became more lucid, more detailed and more fluid. This continued throughout 1976, culminating in a group of paintings which he worked on throughout 1977 including the Untitled II, together with Untitled V (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo) and North Atlantic Light (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) amongst others. In Untitled II, de Kooning’s command of the chaotic state of flux of these pictures can be seen in the complex and expressively layered passages visible throughout the work, while simultaneously maintaining complete control over the resultant whole.
When the paintings were exhibited in 1978 in the exhibition Willem de Kooning in East Hampton at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, critics drew parallels between de Kooning, then aged 74, and another painter who had experienced a flourishing of creativity late in life, the Impressionist, Claude Monet. Both artists had developed unique approaches to the abstracted landscape, and reading Monet’s account of his Nymphaes paintings it seems that both artists might have been grappling with similar concerns. “I have painted these water lilies a great deal,” Monet said, “modifying my viewpoint each time. The effect varies constantly, not only from one season to the next, but from one minute to the next, since the water-flowers themselves are far from being the whole scene; really, they are just the accompaniment. The essence of the motif is the mirror of water, whose appearance alters at every moment, thanks to the patches of sky that are reflected in it, and give it its light and movement. So many factors, undetectable to the uninitiated eye, transform the coloring and distort the planes of water” (C. Monet, quoted in P. Tucker, Monet in the Twentieth Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 11).
Perhaps more than any other work in this series, Untitled II also evokes the figure and traditions of Odalisque. Here, the flesh toned hues of red and pink paint coalesce into a form that recalls the human body, with arms outstretched, reclining amidst the light and dark planes of the landscape. Recalling the finest Odalisques of the art historical canon, such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Grand Odalisque, 1814 (Louvre, Paris) and Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1862/63 (Museé d’Orsay, Paris) for example, de Kooning’s forms successfully meld together two of the greatest genres of artistic expression. While he may not have been consciously inserting himself into this historical canon, he was interested however in the metamorphosis of forms and how this alchemy can take place within his chosen medium of oil paint. In this context, he particularly admired the work of the expressionist painter Chaïm Soutine whose contorted portraits and landscapes resulted in a peculiarly intense, lyrical vision of the world. He told David Sylvester “I’ve always been crazy about Soutine—all of his paintings,” de Kooning said. “Maybe it’s the lushness of the paint. He builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There’s a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness, in his work…I remember when I first saw the Soutines in the Barnes Collection…the Matisses had a light of their own, but the Soutines had a glow that came from within the paintings—it was another kind of light” (W. de Kooning, quoted in L. Matthiessen and M. Staats, “The Genetics of Art, Quest/77 1, no. 1, March-April 1977, p. 70). Further emphasizing this relationship, David Sylvester has stated, “Soutine, in the landscapes of his Céret period, had used broad strokes of thick, juicy paint to put flesh on the bones of analytical cubist compositions, or of the Cézannes that had inspired these. And there is no doubt that those paintings had a crucial influence on de Kooning” (W. de Kooning quoted in D. Sylvester, About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-1996, London, 2001, p. 338).
De Kooning spent much of his career negotiating the constantly shifting line between figuration and gestural abstraction. He championed a new sort of ambiguity in his art, one which scholar John Elderfield suggested traversed many of the major movements of the 20th century as the artist sought to “retain both the sculptural contours and ‘bulging, twisting’ planes of traditional figure painting… and the shallow picture plane of modernist art found in the Cubist works of, for example, Picasso and Braque. De Kooning developed several different solutions to this visual issue, becoming an artist who never seemed to stop moving and exploring. He was, in his own enigmatic turn of phrase, a ‘slipping glimpser’ (J. Elderfield, “Willem De Kooning Still Dazzles.” Smithsonian. October 2011, via http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/willem-de-kooning-still-dazzles).
As such, Willem de Kooning’s paintings from this period were as topographical, as they were geographical. The artist compresses the traditional notion of perspective into an aspect which appears as if viewed from above, thereby pushing his painterly dance to the fore. “De Kooning’s paintings of the 70s are an annihilation of distance,” David Sylvester said of these works. “These paintings are crystallizations of the experience and amazement of having body and mind dissolve into another who is all delight.” (D. Sylvester, “Flesh was the Reason” in Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 30). This amalgamation was the culmination of decades of painterly practice, a visceral celebration of all that makes painting the premier art form. By combining color, form, abstraction and figuration into one pulsating canvas, de Kooning demonstrates why he has come to be celebrated as one of the most inventive painters of the post-war period. “When I moved into this house,” he said in 1972 of his move to Springs, “everything seemed self-evident… The space, the light, the trees—I just accepted it without thinking about it much. Now I look around with new eyes. I think it’s all a kind of miracle” (W. de Kooning, quoted by J. Elderfield, ibid, p. 419).